Written by Chris Feather

... and now for something completely different!

Helpmates are different from all other kinds of chess composition. In many countries they are called something like “cooperative mates”, since Black and White cooperate to reach a position in which Black is mated. This is the most popular type of chess problem. It doesn't make the mistake of trying to imitate the game. It just does its own thing. The solver gets a feeling of being in control of both sets of pieces, something which never happens over the board!

If you think it's perverse to abandon the idea of struggle, you'll have to take issue with some rather good players. Former British Champions Jonathan Penrose and Bill Hartston have both composed helpmates, and Bob Wade has recently become a keen solver of them. Grandmaster Pál Benkö is a helpmate composer of the first rank. Oh, and do you recognise this?:– 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.0-0 Bc5 6.e5 etc. That's right, the Max Lange attack, named after ... the inventor of the helpmate! (From now on we'll change to problemists' notation – rather than N for knight – however.)

So how does it work? BLACK plays first and helps White to mate the black king in the stated number of moves. The fact that Black is to play means that the number of moves is the same for each side, which gives a good balance. Consequently, for neatness of notation, Black's moves are written first, which may at first seem confusing. Thus for example a two-move helpmate solution reads: 1.black move, white move 2.black move, white mate! Well, I did say helpmates were something completely different ... and unless you're the sort of person who buys a Norwegian Blue Parrot I guess you'll be able to cope. Have a look at no. 1.

(1) Jacob Mintz

1st Prize, The Problemist, 1982


Helpmate in 3 (see text)

That problem had twelve moves for each side, and only five pieces! Helpmates are often delightfully simple and clear. Here's another helpmate in three (no. 2, this time with all of six pieces!).

(2) H Ternblad

1st Prize, feenschach, 1954


Helpmate in 3, with set play (see text)

One of the most attractive features of helpmates is the intricacy of the interplay. White and Black are trying to cooperate, but it isn't easy! (Who said helpmates weren't like real life?)

(3) Peter Kniest

4th Prize, Kennst Du die Bibel?, 1966


Helpmate in 4

Many (but not all!) helpmates are easy to solve, for one thing because once you have seen a fair number of them you can usually spot the composer's idea. The artistic aspect of chess composition requires that a problem (of any type) should have a discernible theme and some kind of unity. (For more on these ideas see the wonderful book Secrets of Spectacular Chess, details of which are in the book list.) We have seen this thematic unity in the four parts of no. 1, which are connected together by the idea of all the four possible promotions of the black pawn, in the same idea with a mixture of black and white promotions in no.2, and in the exchange of places in no.3. An experienced solver would have seen the idea of that last problem immediately. If you can guess the theme of a problem you have a head start towards solving it, but some composers try to hide the idea as best they can. Maybe they just like to puzzle, or maybe they are composing for a solving contest. International solving contests always contain a helpmate round, and it is not always the easiest! Two of our strongest competitive solvers, John Nunn and the editor of this website, Michael McDowell, are both helpmate composers, but even they have occasionally been known to have trouble with helpmates in solving contests. No. 4 was used in a solving competition in Finland where at least one Solving World Champion was present. A Finnish chess problem magazine reported that it “caused trouble for a room full of experts”. Nevertheless with a few hints you might just manage it. Let's see.

The first point is that all the pieces must be necessary. Some of them may just be there to stop unwanted solutions (usually called ‘cooks’) but where possible only black material is used for this purpose, so as to achieve the final position with as little mating force as possible. There's a good chance, then, that four or five white units (possibly not the king) will be used for the mate. That should suggest the file where the mate takes place. The pawn on f5 looks as though it might be there to block a square, and the bishop is well placed to block e4, all of which points to e5 for the black king. Where would the rook guard as many as possible of the squares around e5? So how does the c-pawn participate? And why is f4 guarded by two white pawns? What must the mating move be?

(4) C. J. Feather

British Chess Magazine, 1999


Helpmate in 4

After that we had better have something simpler. Short helpmates often have several (related) solutions, which increases their thematic interest but usually makes them easy to solve. An attractive way to relate the solutions is to have the mating positions echo each other.

(5) Matti Myllyniemi

Satakunnan Kansa, 1968


Helpmate in 2: 4 solutions

Finally, three problems for you to try to solve on your own. Or nearly. First the diagrams, then some hints (click the ‘show hint’ button), and finally the solutions (click the ‘show solution’ button). If you want more, you can find plenty in both the BCPS magazines.

(6) Christopher J. A. Jones

British Chess Magazine, 1997


Helpmate in 2: 2 solutions

(7) Pal Benkö

Schach-Echo, 1970


Helpmate in 2 (b) wB from c1 to f1

(8) Pieter ten Cate

2nd Prize, Diagramme und Figuren, 1965


Helpmate in 6: 2 solutions

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